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Most previous books about Dmitri Shostakovich have focused on either his symphonies and operas, or his relationship to the regime under which he lived, or both, since these large-scale works were the ones that attracted the interest and sometimes the condemnation of the Soviet authorities. Music for Silenced Voices looks at Shostakovich through the back door, as it were, o Most previous books about Dmitri Shostakovich have focused on either his symphonies and operas, or his relationship to the regime under which he lived, or both, since these large-scale works were the ones that attracted the interest and sometimes the condemnation of the Soviet authorities. Music for Silenced Voices looks at Shostakovich through the back door, as it were, of his fifteen quartets, the works which his widow characterized as a "diary, the story of his soul." The silences and the voices were of many kinds, including the political silencing of adventurous writers, artists, and musicians during the Stalin era; the lost voices of Shostakovich's operas (a form he abandoned just before turning to string quartets); and the death-silenced voices of his close friends, to whom he dedicated many of these chamber works. Wendy Lesser has constructed a fascinating narrative in which the fifteen quartets, considered one at a time in chronological order, lead the reader through the personal, political, and professional events that shaped Shostakovich's singular, emblematic twentieth-century life. Weaving together interviews with the composer's friends, family, and colleagues, as well as conversations with present-day musicians who have played the quartets, Lesser sheds new light on the man and the musician. One of the very few books about Shostakovich that is aimed at a general rather than an academic audience, Music for Silenced Voices is a pleasure to read; at the same time, it is rigorously faithful to the known facts in this notoriously complicated life. It will fill readers with the desire to hear the quartets, which are among the most compelling and emotionally powerful monuments of the past century's music.


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Most previous books about Dmitri Shostakovich have focused on either his symphonies and operas, or his relationship to the regime under which he lived, or both, since these large-scale works were the ones that attracted the interest and sometimes the condemnation of the Soviet authorities. Music for Silenced Voices looks at Shostakovich through the back door, as it were, o Most previous books about Dmitri Shostakovich have focused on either his symphonies and operas, or his relationship to the regime under which he lived, or both, since these large-scale works were the ones that attracted the interest and sometimes the condemnation of the Soviet authorities. Music for Silenced Voices looks at Shostakovich through the back door, as it were, of his fifteen quartets, the works which his widow characterized as a "diary, the story of his soul." The silences and the voices were of many kinds, including the political silencing of adventurous writers, artists, and musicians during the Stalin era; the lost voices of Shostakovich's operas (a form he abandoned just before turning to string quartets); and the death-silenced voices of his close friends, to whom he dedicated many of these chamber works. Wendy Lesser has constructed a fascinating narrative in which the fifteen quartets, considered one at a time in chronological order, lead the reader through the personal, political, and professional events that shaped Shostakovich's singular, emblematic twentieth-century life. Weaving together interviews with the composer's friends, family, and colleagues, as well as conversations with present-day musicians who have played the quartets, Lesser sheds new light on the man and the musician. One of the very few books about Shostakovich that is aimed at a general rather than an academic audience, Music for Silenced Voices is a pleasure to read; at the same time, it is rigorously faithful to the known facts in this notoriously complicated life. It will fill readers with the desire to hear the quartets, which are among the most compelling and emotionally powerful monuments of the past century's music.

30 review for Music for Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets

  1. 5 out of 5

    Rene Saller

    In the epilogue to this meticulously researched and gracefully written Shostakovich study, Wendy Lesser acknowledges the hazards of her project: “Like the interpretation we impose on a work of art in order to bring its alien majesty closer to our understanding, the narrative arc is a device we impose on a life to make it more comprehensible, more graspable. But our interpretation of a life (as of an artwork) could easily be wrong, and in any case it can never be wholly true, for a life is as com In the epilogue to this meticulously researched and gracefully written Shostakovich study, Wendy Lesser acknowledges the hazards of her project: “Like the interpretation we impose on a work of art in order to bring its alien majesty closer to our understanding, the narrative arc is a device we impose on a life to make it more comprehensible, more graspable. But our interpretation of a life (as of an artwork) could easily be wrong, and in any case it can never be wholly true, for a life is as complicated as a work of art—more so, in some ways, because of its arbitrariness. In life, things happen out of order, and that is what makes it particularly different to distinguish cause from effect, personal choices from impersonal givens, and random incidents from significant foreshadowings.” Unlike so many biographies of composers and most music criticism, this book offers a multiplicity of possible interpretations, and it never falls victim to the easy equivalencies and reductive readings that plague the genre. Lesser is a passionate amateur, not a musicologist, something she turns into an asset rather than a deficiency. Although she sets out to examine Shostakovich the man through the lens of his string quartets, she recognizes the elusiveness of her subject, the many uneasy contradictions between what he said publicly and what he felt privately. All lives are almost certainly unknowable, but Shostakovich’s is particularly so, given his historical circumstances as a Soviet-era composer and his unique temperament: a self-described coward who was often very brave on behalf of his friends; a sardonic and humorous man who struggled with melancholy and completely reasonable fears; a passionate man who was also shy and reserved. Lesser meets this challenge as a biographer by being as allusive and open-ended as her subject. An attentive, insightful listener, she describes her own impressions of the music, but she doesn’t stop there; she proposes other possibilities and acknowledges the capacity of the music to elicit radically different interpretations. In addition to consulting the standard authoritative sources, she interviewed many people to supplement her own understanding of the quartets, and she quotes them liberally. Shostakovich’s family members, friends, and associates are well represented, but so are many musicians who know the composer in a way that is arguably even more intimate: by complete immersion in his music. This is an enormously sympathetic biography, but it doesn’t overlook Shostakovich’s personal flaws. Instead, it makes a strong case for the ways in which the man’s imperfections, his sometimes shameful moral failings, deepen and humanize his work. (finished 7/14/2013)

  2. 5 out of 5

    Lyle

    P. 91 "Half conscious," Kurt Sanderling argues. "Not a conscious protest, but half conscious. No composer, not least Shostakovich, sits down consciously to write about the individual versus society. But the composer sits down and then the conflict finds its expression." P. 112 If Shostakovich wants to base a particular musical passage on his girlfriend's clarinet trio – or his own initials, or somebody else's first name as he was to do in the Tenth Symphony which came right after the Fifth Quartet P. 91 "Half conscious," Kurt Sanderling argues. "Not a conscious protest, but half conscious. No composer, not least Shostakovich, sits down consciously to write about the individual versus society. But the composer sits down and then the conflict finds its expression." P. 112 If Shostakovich wants to base a particular musical passage on his girlfriend's clarinet trio – or his own initials, or somebody else's first name as he was to do in the Tenth Symphony which came right after the Fifth Quartet, that does not mean he has handed us the key to the whole work. He is playing with us; or maybe he is just playing. P. 145 It is easy to confuse the autobiography of reception with the autobiography of creation, to imagine that the composer (or writer, or painter) simply put in the same feelings that we later took out. This is not how art works, but part of its beauty and cunning is to make us believe that is how it works. P. 162 "He was only a man," Sanderling temporizes. "he was a coward when it concerned his own affairs, but he was very courageous when it concerned others." P. 244 But according to Kurt Sanderling – who conducted the Fifteenth at its Berlin premiere in 1972, and then performed more than a hundred times, all over the world, during the rest of his career – Shostakovich "sent it into the world under a wrong flag. He introduced it as a tiny, small symphony, as a toy shop, so they couldn't understand what they were hearing." P. 252 "My mother, who was my father's pupil, always said, 'I would recognize a cellist at one kilometer's distance.' The instrument leaves a great mark on the person"

  3. 4 out of 5

    Rob Hermanowski

    A fascinating book that explores events in Shostakovich's life (in the former U.S.S.R.) while he wrote his amazing cycle of 15 string quartets (one of the greatest bodies of chamber music ever written). I enjoyed reading the book then listening to each quartet chronologically, mostly driving to and from work. Highly recommended for both modern history buffs and those intersted in classical music. A fascinating book that explores events in Shostakovich's life (in the former U.S.S.R.) while he wrote his amazing cycle of 15 string quartets (one of the greatest bodies of chamber music ever written). I enjoyed reading the book then listening to each quartet chronologically, mostly driving to and from work. Highly recommended for both modern history buffs and those intersted in classical music.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Klenk

    You have to listen to the quartets while you read this. And that could be a problem if you tend to read before you go to bed and if you or your spouse is particularly sensitive to anxiety inducing music.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Steven Severance

    This is a very frustrating bok to read. There are lots of interesting facts and quotes about the composer and his life. She also has interesting ideas and observations about the music. But this book has way too much repition! Within the chpaters there is a lack of organized thought. The author will drone on for pages with slightly different versions of the same thought and no ordered progression between the interpretive options possible for the quartets. It is a frustrating shambles to have to re This is a very frustrating bok to read. There are lots of interesting facts and quotes about the composer and his life. She also has interesting ideas and observations about the music. But this book has way too much repition! Within the chpaters there is a lack of organized thought. The author will drone on for pages with slightly different versions of the same thought and no ordered progression between the interpretive options possible for the quartets. It is a frustrating shambles to have to read virtually the same idea or sentence over and over again without any apparent progression or order. Where was her editor (Arthur Lubow) when we so desperatly needed him?

  6. 4 out of 5

    Bradthad Codgeroger

    How to write biographical criticism of music that doesn't overinflate the importance of biography (or criticism) in music? Wendy Lesser figured it out, and made it fun and interesting to boot. How to write biographical criticism of music that doesn't overinflate the importance of biography (or criticism) in music? Wendy Lesser figured it out, and made it fun and interesting to boot.

  7. 5 out of 5

    John B

    One of the best Shostakovich books ever written. A must read for lovers of his quartets.

  8. 4 out of 5

    Richard Anderson

    Wonderful portrait of the quartets and the composer.

  9. 5 out of 5

    Omid_Naeini

    Another book of dilettante music criticism which itself invites the question “do we really need more of this?” (Or perhaps have we ever needed them?), which is not to say that it’s not enjoyable to read. In fact, it is so enjoyable that I never realized I was almost 200 pages in, and it was exactly then that it hit me! I reflected back and asked myself, now that I’ve read this 200 pages, how much did I learn about Schostakovich’s quartets? The answer was almost nothing, except that the writer fe Another book of dilettante music criticism which itself invites the question “do we really need more of this?” (Or perhaps have we ever needed them?), which is not to say that it’s not enjoyable to read. In fact, it is so enjoyable that I never realized I was almost 200 pages in, and it was exactly then that it hit me! I reflected back and asked myself, now that I’ve read this 200 pages, how much did I learn about Schostakovich’s quartets? The answer was almost nothing, except that the writer felt this or that emotion when she heard this or that quartet!

  10. 5 out of 5

    Stewart

    Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the 20th century’s premier composer of symphonies, with 15, most of them still performed. Having written 15 string quartets, he has to be considered the century’s premier composer in that form as well. Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review in Berkeley, takes a detailed look at those 15 string quartets in her 2011 book, "Music For Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets." Lesser analyzes the string quartets and provides biographical back Dmitri Shostakovich (1906-1975) was the 20th century’s premier composer of symphonies, with 15, most of them still performed. Having written 15 string quartets, he has to be considered the century’s premier composer in that form as well. Wendy Lesser, editor of the Threepenny Review in Berkeley, takes a detailed look at those 15 string quartets in her 2011 book, "Music For Silenced Voices: Shostakovich and His Fifteen Quartets." Lesser analyzes the string quartets and provides biographical background surrounding the composition and premiere of these works. Lesser’s book provides new information because she interviewed many of the composer’s surviving relatives and friends, including Irina Shostakovich, his third wife, Maxim Shostakovich, his son, and musicians who have often performed his string quartets. For most of the book, Lesser occupies the middle ground between one extreme of not attempting any connection between the circumstances of Shostakovich’s life – the oppression and at times his fear for his life at the hands of the brutal regime of Joseph Stalin – and his music; and the other extreme of over-analysis, reading “meaning” or “secret messages” in the music that could not possibly be there. After all, notes on a page and the corresponding vibrations in the air that the human brain turns into tones are not innately happy or sad, or straightforward or ironic, political or nonpolitical, or have a story or secret messages, unless the composer explicitly says so. I think the author crosses the line in the Epilogue into reading too much into the music. She writes: “Except for those who write off the whole of Shostakovich's music as an ironic mask, there is widespread agreement that a number of his works, and in particular the string quartets, carry a powerful sense of truth. But a debate rages about what, exactly, is meant by that. Is this ‘truth’ the same thing as the heartfelt honesty that [violinist Philip] Setzer hears? Are we simply saying that the music accurately represents the man himself, or perhaps the man and his circumstances? And in that case, is this just another version of what some might call ‘authenticity’? Or is there some other kind of truth here, some deeper correlation between the world as we listeners perceive it and the world as the music portrays it? Many of those who love the Shostakovich quartets would be inclined, I think, to make this larger claim for it, though we would be hard-pressed to demonstrate how it works.” How can we talk about an abstract medium such as music – and string quartets are the ultimate in abstraction – and “truth”? Absent any definitive comment from Shostokovich, I find such musings about the “truth” or “real meaning” or “authenticity” in his string quartets to be next to meaningless. I agree with American composer Ned Rorem who is quoted in the book as saying that music cannot refer to anything outside of itself. I bought a five-CD set of the Emerson String Quartet playing the 15 Shostakovich string quartets and listened to them as I read the book. The insightful book and the great playing by the Emerson players were an outstanding complement to each other. Notwithstanding my caveat about the Epilogue, I think those people familiar with this giant of classical music will find Lesser’s book a welcomed addition to their libraries.

  11. 4 out of 5

    Grady

    Conversations over Shostakovich Quartets Wendy Lesser has done her homework! This 'biography' is obviously a work of love as the author informs us of her introductions to the brilliant quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich and how the immediacy of his pure music, music written out of the limelight (the positive and negative focus) of his endurance of Soviet condemnation, is more a sensitive to his reactions to his life and the people who surrounded his life. Her writing style approaches conversation a Conversations over Shostakovich Quartets Wendy Lesser has done her homework! This 'biography' is obviously a work of love as the author informs us of her introductions to the brilliant quartets of Dmitri Shostakovich and how the immediacy of his pure music, music written out of the limelight (the positive and negative focus) of his endurance of Soviet condemnation, is more a sensitive to his reactions to his life and the people who surrounded his life. Her writing style approaches conversation and that is an aspect that makes this volume such a pleasure to read. Lesser does indeed understand music and has found a manner in which to evaluate in words her perceptions of the various aspects of the compositions she address in a way that even novices will find understandable. But the really superb part of this book is the technique Lesser uses to offer up the life of one of the greatest composers of the 20th century, tracing his life from childhood to youth and his introduction to composition, through the period of Stalinism when he was condemned for his decadent Western music, his music from the 4th symphony and his operas were banned form performance, nearly losing his life at the Zhdanov Decree in 1948, how he had the courage to 'bow down' (very much with tongue in cheek) to the demands Stalin placed on him, falling from the stance of being the finest composer in Russia to being penniless until Stalin once again allowed his works to have performances in the USSR. With Stalin's death and with the eventual changes or softening of policy against the arts Shostakovich regained his status and has been influential in music since that time. The author's choice of examining the fifteen quartets as the inner map to revealing the true character and life of Dmitri Shostakovich is a wise one. In the course of the book Lesser explains this choice: 'If the full orchestra can be seen as a mass society in which the performers risk losing their individuality, while the solo recital represents an essentially narcissistic arrange, then the string quartet might be viewed as an ideal society in which the musicians look to each other for guidance. By eliminating the massive and hierarchical orchestral structure, Shostakovich was attaining a measure of practical relief - from the need to rehearse in a large, public space, with intrusive questions flung at him by a conductor and with every move potentially watched by interfering officials... [he turned to the quartet].....well, so much the more reason for Shostakovich to seek it out in his private life and in his music. This book is graceful, intelligent, and gives a fresh view of the great composer Dmitri Shostakovich and from the vantage of over a half century since his condemnation by a Communist government to to his present international acceptance of being one of the most performed composers in our halls Wendy Lesser gives a better picture of the man as well as the artist. Highly Recommended. Grady Harp

  12. 5 out of 5

    Jonfaith

    I truly admire the composer Shostakovich. My best friend gave me this book for the holidays. Upon completing Music For Silenced Voices, I can't detect and radical change to either of those previous sentences. That said, there was not great deal present to augment an appreciation for the chamber music of the embattled Soviet. There are yards of filler: anecdotes about Ayn Rand, Chekhov, Zoschchenko and Vasily Grossman: not any of which proved directly pertinent. It could almost be a study of the B I truly admire the composer Shostakovich. My best friend gave me this book for the holidays. Upon completing Music For Silenced Voices, I can't detect and radical change to either of those previous sentences. That said, there was not great deal present to augment an appreciation for the chamber music of the embattled Soviet. There are yards of filler: anecdotes about Ayn Rand, Chekhov, Zoschchenko and Vasily Grossman: not any of which proved directly pertinent. It could almost be a study of the Beethoven Quartet ensemble which performed the premieres of most of the works. If for nothing else, I listened again to all this haunting music. That is rewarding.

  13. 5 out of 5

    Jane

    I enjoyed the historical aspects of the book. Learned a lot about the artists and what it was like to be an artist under the communist regime. It was interesting it to view that world through Shostakovich. The author's endless pursuit of explaining Shostakovich's voice in his work became very annoying by the end of the book. I enjoyed the historical aspects of the book. Learned a lot about the artists and what it was like to be an artist under the communist regime. It was interesting it to view that world through Shostakovich. The author's endless pursuit of explaining Shostakovich's voice in his work became very annoying by the end of the book.

  14. 5 out of 5

    N

    A remarkable book really, makes you listen to the Quartets in a totally different way. A useful companion piece to Barnes' 'The Noise of Time'. Highly recommended for insight into Shostakovitch and Soviet music/culture. A remarkable book really, makes you listen to the Quartets in a totally different way. A useful companion piece to Barnes' 'The Noise of Time'. Highly recommended for insight into Shostakovitch and Soviet music/culture.

  15. 4 out of 5

    Eric

    While nominally focused on Shostakovich's brilliant string quartets, the book also contains wonderful information about the life of the composer as well. Was very impressed. While nominally focused on Shostakovich's brilliant string quartets, the book also contains wonderful information about the life of the composer as well. Was very impressed.

  16. 4 out of 5

    Jeremy Shatan

    A beautifully written and concise exploration of a major facet of Shostakovich's catalog. We learn much about the man, his times, and his music. A beautifully written and concise exploration of a major facet of Shostakovich's catalog. We learn much about the man, his times, and his music.

  17. 4 out of 5

    Dana

    can't wait to read this. nyt review: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/boo... can't wait to read this. nyt review: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/05/08/boo...

  18. 5 out of 5

    Iben

    An engaging introduction to Shostakovich's life and works, and perfectly accessible for non-musicologists/musicians. An engaging introduction to Shostakovich's life and works, and perfectly accessible for non-musicologists/musicians.

  19. 4 out of 5

    Guillermo Salas-Suarez

    Somtimes too subjective

  20. 4 out of 5

    Lola McGee

  21. 4 out of 5

    Alex

  22. 5 out of 5

    Goran Remborg

  23. 4 out of 5

    Gconz

  24. 5 out of 5

    Paul

  25. 4 out of 5

    Dan

  26. 5 out of 5

    Clodagh Whelan

  27. 4 out of 5

    Federico

  28. 5 out of 5

    Melanie

  29. 4 out of 5

    Damian Rees

  30. 4 out of 5

    Doug Johnson

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